On Wednesday, four defendants charged with criminal damage for toppling the statue of the slaver, Edward Colston, in Bristol were acquitted by a jury. The statue was brought down and dumped in Bristol harbour during the course of a Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June 2020, held in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States on 25 May 2020.
The jury heard that Bristol City Council had in effect ignored calls made over the course of over 30 years to remove and/or recontextualise the statue and its plaque which celebrated a slave trader – responsible for the enslavement of 84,000 Black men, women and children and the deaths of over 19,000 – as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of Bristol.
The defendants disputed that they had damaged the statue, that they had intended to do so and/or that they had been reckless. They also argued that they had a number of lawful excuses for their actions. In particular, they asserted that they had used reasonable force to prevent a crime, on the basis that the ongoing display of the statue with its plaque constituted the display of indecent material contrary to the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981. They also asserted that a conviction would be disproportionate, having regard to their rights to freedom of conscience and belief and freedom of speech, protected under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as balanced against the property rights of the Council and the people of Bristol. Two of the defendants, Rhian Graham and Jake Skuse, also asserted that they honestly believed at the time of the toppling that the people of Bristol, for whom the statue was held on trust by Bristol City Council, would have consented to any damage caused by the statue’s removal.
Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh acted for Rhian Graham, instructed by Laura O’Brien at Hodge, Jones & Allen.
The case and verdict have been covered extensively by the media, including: